"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
One of the burdens of blackness, W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, was facing down an omnipresent question from the wider society: “How does it feel to be a problem?” I’ve been wondering lately if white people might soon understand what he meant.
Both the right and left suddenly have a lot of complaints about white people, particularly the so-called white working class. In “Suicide of a Superpower,” Pat Buchanan describes white Americans contemptuously at times, as an endangered species obliviously collaborating in its own demise by tolerating liberal multiculturalism. Charles Murray, the man who in the 1980s blamed government for encouraging sloth and single-parenthood in the black community, is now saying the same thing about the white lower class: they’re suffering from declining wages and higher unemployment not because of a changed economy, but because they’ve come to prefer slacking and shacking up to hard work and marriage. But white rich people are a problem, too: Murray’s book “Coming Apart: The State of White American 1960-2010″ indicts the white uber-class for refusing to impose their own traditional values, which he believes are the foundation of their economic success, on their lazy, out-of-control lessers.
On the left, white people have been a problem for a while, due to the depth and persistence of white racism. Today it’s hard to ignore the racial resentment that feeds the hysterical anti-Obama movement – the sickening email about the president’s mother sent by a federal judge is just the latest example. Democratic pollsters and strategists have been wringing their hands over losing the white working class to the GOP since the rise of “Reagan Democrats,” but it’s now remarkable the extent to which the Republican Party has become a white party. Where that was an advantage back in Buchanan’s day, though, it’s an eroding base in the 21st century. About 52 percent of white voters call themselves Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center, as opposed to 8 percent of blacks and 22 percent of Latinos. In a provocative New York magazine piece, Jonathan Chait says white voters are all that stands between the Republican Party and “demographic extinction.” But since white America itself will soon be demographically extinct, as the dominant racial group anyway, Chait sees the GOP doubling down on its 40-year strategy of fomenting culture war and racial resentment for a “last stand” that calls to mind Custer’s.
It’s true: white Americans will technically be a minority by mid-century — although questions about how we count “white people” versus “people of color” (some mixed-race people as well as Latinos think of themselves as “white”) — let us crunch these numbers in different ways. However we crunch them, though, Pat Buchanan is right — about the country’s demographic future, anyway. Sometime in the 21st century this won’t be a “white” country anymore. There are signs that some white people, at least, aren’t taking it all that well.
Should Democrats pop the champagne corks and celebrate the permanent political realignment? Should supporters of racial justice cheer on the new demographic reality? It’s a little early, on both counts. In 2008, James Carville jumped the gun with his triumphal book “Forty More Years.” In 2010, of course, the GOP took back the House and narrowed the Democrats’ lead dangerously in the Senate, when the proportion of white and senior voters rose and the share of young and minority voters declined.
But even if time seems to be on our side, there are risks involved in Democrats talking about a counter-racial strategy. Some campaign strategists have suggested that the president worry less about the stubborn white working class in 2012 and double down on the coalition that elected him: young people, the college-educated, unmarried women and minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos. The right, in turn, has picked up on such musings and exaggerated them, all to keep that white-hot white resentment burning.
In late 2011, a Wall Street Journal columnist announced, “Obama Will Abandon The Working Class,” but of course he only talked about working class whites. It was a misleading headline on a story about the campaign’s focus on Latino votes in the Southwest, combined with an outside demographer’s observations about the president’s ongoing difficulties with working class whites. Just Wednesday, before he began the filthy rant about Sandra Fluke that ought to get him mothballed, Rush Limbaugh railed that Obama “Casts Aside White, Working-Class Families While Setting Up ‘African-Americans For Obama‘;” in December he claimed “the Obama campaign says to white working class families: We’re not interested in your votes; we don’t care.”
The president’s crafty strategy, Limbaugh insists, is meant not only to disrespect whites but to rev up and turn out his non-white base, which presumably thrills to the notion of reparations and race war. Of course it’s Limbaugh and his hard-core listeners who want a race war; the rest of us, of every race, mainly just want to get along.
With all this hand-wringing about white people, what should the president’s strategy be in 2012? I think it should be what it’s become since the summer: a full-throated commitment to building an economy that works for everyone, backed by a government that’s run for everyone, not just for the 1 percent. The passionate President Obama who told the United Auto Workers on Tuesday that he backed the Big Three rescue plan because “I believed in you!” can win re-election – and if he can’t win back a majority of the white working class from the GOP (and he probably can’t), he can do as well as he did in 2008, and maybe better. The emerging multiracial Obama coalition has the potential to transform the way we all think about race and politics as we invent the next — but only if we can all forgo petty racial score-setting and 20th century conceptions about identity. And only if more white people wake up to what they’ve let the Republican Party do to the country in the last 40 years, in the name of holding on to what they think they have.
I have a hard time with liberals who dismiss the white working class as hopelessly Republican and racist, because they ignore something interesting: in 2008, our first black president got a higher share of their votes than any recent white Democrat in this generation, including John Kerry, Al Gore and even Bill Clinton. A New York Times analysis found that Obama won 46 percent of whites without a college degree who earned between $30,000 and 75,000 a year, to Bill Clinton’s 44 percent. He kept John McCain’s edge with that group to 6 points, when George W. Bush won them by 35 points against John Kerry four years earlier.
And in some swing states, like Ohio, the “Obama coalition” ultimately included the white working class. Although Hillary Clinton trounced him with those voters in the March 2008 primary, by November the president’s fired-up populist pitch plus the banking collapse pulled white voters making under $50,000 into the president’s column, helping him win the bellwether state that has gone for the victorious presidential candidate in every election since 1960.
Yes, many of those voters raced back into the Republican column in 2010, when the GOP ran up a 30-point edge in midterm congressional races, and for much of 2011, Democrats talked darkly about a strategy to keep the White House without winning Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, key swing states he took in 2008. But I’m not sure why we’d conclude that those voters’ problem was mainly racial, or that they had run back to the GOP for good. Had they shaken off their racism in 2008, only to have it return like a stubborn virus in 2010? Did the president become more black? What if their reaction derived from frustration with Democratic leaders who hadn’t pursued an economic turnaround agenda aggressively enough, at a time when unemployment stood at more than 10 percent – and almost 15 percent for whites without a college degree?
There are also signs that some of those white voters might have developed buyers’ remorse a few months after the 2010 vote. A wave of new GOP governors made unexpectedly aggressive moves against labor – and in Wisconsin and Ohio, working class voters fought back. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and Ohio’s John Kasich made public workers the new public enemy, and demonized them as slackers and moochers living off the government, kind of like they were the new “welfare queens.” In November 2011, Ohio repealed GOP governor John Kasich’s bill that stripped public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights, and Wisconsin voters began a drive to recall Scott Walker.
In Maine, which had elected a Tea Party governor in 2010, voters in 2011 overturned a Republican-sponsored law that had abolished the state’s traditional same-day registration practice. The ten states that allowed citizens to register and vote at the same time, a practice that dramatically increases voter turnout, just happened to be the nation’s most homogeneous—that is, the whitest—from Idaho to Wyoming to Maine. Yet once Republicans realized that even in the whitest states, same-day voter laws empower citizens who are more likely to vote against them—students, young people, the lower-income of every race, and yes, the nonwhite—they’ve fought these voter laws ruthlessly. “Voting liberal, that’s what kids do,” a New Hampshire Republican said in defense of a bill that would prohibit people from voting with only a college ID – and given his state’s demographics, he’s mainly talking about white kids. Thus the radical GOP is now rolling back rights white people have long taken for granted – and in Maine, at least, they fought back. Maybe they’ll do so around the country in the next election.
In the 2012 GOP presidential campaign, I’ve been amazed by the extent to which the leading candidates are comfortable demonizing “dependency,” which includes the now 46 million Americans now on food stamps as well as the 7.5 million receiving unemployment benefits, the vast majority of both groups being white. This is the new GOP narrative: that Obama is extending the welfare state, just as the right-wing has always feared — but they’re now calling certain groups of whites the new moochers. After Limbaugh’s disgusting attack on Sandra Fluke, conservatives began a new, more genteel crusade against her, calling her a “welfare queen” who wanted the government to pay for her birth control.
When Rick Santorum got into hot water for seeming to say he didn’t want to make “black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money,” he was able to argue – even if not entirely believably – that he wasn’t just talking about black people (or “blah” people): “I’ve been pretty clear about my concern for dependency in this country and concern for people not being more dependent on our government, whatever their race or ethnicity is.” And that’s true.
Santorum blames all struggling Americans for giving up on the father-headed, nuclear family that makes this country strong. “When the family breaks down, the economy breaks down,” he’s said repeatedly, not allowing for the possibility that the process works the opposite way. And in the last GOP debate, Santorum quoted Charles Murray on the scourge of “the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America,” without mentioning that Murray was attacking white people.
But he’s not the only Republican who talks that way. South Carolina Tea Party Sen. Jim DeMint also warns about the growing spread of “dependency” throughout the populace. “Republican supporters will continue to decrease every year as more Americans become dependent on the government. Dependent voters will naturally elect even big-government progressives who will continue to smother economic growth and spend America deeper into debt.” Chat quotes DeMint warning ominously: “The 2012 election may be the last opportunity for Republicans.” Paul Ryan, he of the “Ryan Plan” to abolish Medicare, divides the electorate into “makers” and “takers.”
This is coded language meant to whip the GOP base into a frenzy of fear and resentment. Because for the last 40 years, we’ve all known who the “takers” were, or were supposed to be, anyway: the “welfare queens,” the urban rioters, the students, the slackers, the various people the Democrats sided with in the 1960s, most of them, in the partisan story-telling, African American.
Yet today, many white folks who are voting Republican don’t seem to know one important fact: they are, in fact, the “takers.”
We joke about white Tea Party supporters demanding to keep the government out of their Medicare. We know that much of the GOP’s aging white base relies on Social Security.
But the contradiction runs even deeper than that: Dartmouth political scientist Dean Lacy found the more a county receives in federal government payments, the more likely it is to vote Republican. The New York Times referred to Lacy’s research in its understated but still rather shocking feature, “Even Critics of Safety Net Depend On It.” As Lacy elaborated to a WNYC reporter: “The counties that are getting more in crop subsidies, housing assistance, and Medicaid payments are a lot more Republican. So it really is about that catch-all category that you might call welfare.” But because their local congressmen and women tend to defend that type of “welfare,” Lacy says, “they have the luxury of voting on social issues knowing that these federal spending programs will be kept in place.”
Except those programs won’t be kept in place by the new GOP, which is committed to trashing even the economic supports it used to (however hypocritically) defend.
I don’t care what Politifact says: Paul Ryan’s plan, endorsed by every GOP candidate, would abolish Medicare. Vouchers aren’t Medicare. Republicans and private insurers tried for years to create a program for elderly Americans that would run as a voucher plan, or some other scheme funneled through private insurance; in 1965 Democrats under Lyndon B. Johnson rejected that route in favor of a federal government-run program they called “Medicare.” The GOP is against it, plain and simple. The Democratic Party should even have a chance to make inroads with white seniors in 2012 if they’re able to broadcast the extremist Republican crusade even against programs that protect them.
As long as Democrats make clear they’re out to protect those programs, that is, and give up on the “grand bargain” delusion, trading Social Security and Medicare cuts for revenue increases, that the president and some of his party allies floated during the debt-ceiling debacle last summer.
So what is the matter with white people, anyway?
When I wrote that sentence, I could hear aggrieved whites on the right getting indignant. We can’t generalize about any other group like that, why ask such a question about white people!? From the left, suggesting whites could experience something W.E.B. DuBois once wrote about might sound like I’m saying their troubles are comparable to those of black folk. Of course, I’m not saying that.
But if the problem of the 20th century was the color line, as Du Bois said, in the 21st century it’s the color lines. We don’t yet have a new narrative around social justice that makes sense in a world without a dominant majority. We don’t quite know what to do with white people.
Of course, whites will remain dominant economically and politically even after they lose demographic dominance, due to the legacy and endurance of racism. But it’s clear that times are harder in certain segments of white America. White unemployment and poverty doubled during this recession, though both rates are only half that of African Americans. Asian-American median income is higher that white median income, and growing faster. Asian-Americans have higher college completion rates than whites, and the gulf is widening. In California, Asian kids are twice as likely than whites to earn grades that make them eligible for the University of California system, and they now make up a majority of the flagship UC-Berkeley campus, where just under a third of students are white. When the New York Times ran a feature on a black student at the city’s elite public Stuyvesant High School last week, all over the Internet I saw people expressing shock that the student body was 72 percent Asian; San Francisco’s comparable Lowell High School has been a solid majority Asian since the 1980s; three quarters of the student body today is Asian-American.
In “Suicide of a Superpower,” poor Pat Buchanan seemed to believe that the rapidly growing number of Asian-Americans in the nation’s top schools had to do with affirmative action. I used to hear the same thing from clueless white people back before the passage of Ward Connerly’s Prop. 209 in 1997, which abolished affirmative action. Of course they were wrong — Asian-American students were succeeding the old-fashioned way, with hard work. Since then, of course, the white proportion of UC students has continued to decline, even without affirmative action.
Living in California it’s easy to see subtle and not so subtle signs of white status anxiety, real and imagined, even beyond school enrollment issues. I was intrigued to see, in a recent Pew Research Center survey of intermarriage trends, that intermarriage rates are going up for every group, except for Asian-Americans, whose rates have long been among the highest, but which are now coming down. Twenty years ago, when I was first writing about California’s racial frontier, sociologists explained high rates of Asian “out-marriage” as a kind of status-seeking: “marrying out” was a way of “marrying up.” Whites sought out Asian partners, in this analysis, as the closest surrogate for whites and as partners who in some settings might even represent their “marrying up.” Whatever the motive behind their pairings, white/Asian couples have the highest income of any pairings, Pew found, including white/white and Asian/Asian, and were far more likely than any other group to have college degrees. But it’s noteworthy to me that the Asian “outmarriage” rate has dropped significantly over the last few years; from just 2010 to 2008, the percentage of American-born Asians newlyweds who married whites dropped from 47% to 38% — a result of a larger Asian population in the U.S., as well as a sign Asian-Americans may no longer need to marry out to marry up.
I’m not suggesting Asians are becoming the American master race, or that Asian-Americans don’t still experience racism. But the way we talk about whites versus “people of color” sometimes seems like we’re grouping “haves” and “have nots,” and making whites the “haves.” A growing number of whites aren’t “haves,” despite our history. And while the country is facing a demographic and generational mismatch, as an elderly white population is supported by a younger, working population in which whites are a minority, it’s possible to exaggerate the importance of that mismatch. Upper middle class and wealthy kids of every race are doing OK; poor and working class kids, including whites, not so much. The Pew Research Center says that an astonishing 45% of black middle class children end up “near poor,” the rate for white families is 16% — and that data is from 2007, before the recession. The rate for both groups is too high for any society that prides itself on upward mobility. We can’t reassure ourselves, if we live in a majority-white area, that we’ll be supported by kids who will be doing well. We all have reason to worry, about everyone’s children.
It’s impossible to generalize about “white people,” of course, and almost as hard to make bold, broad statements about the “white working class.” There are regional differences and differences in age; distinctions according to whether people are married or have children. The biggest difference seems to be whether you define that group by income, or whether you define it in terms of people without a college degree. The Democrats’ current political troubles have more to do with white people who lack a college education than those who lack income. In 2008, Obama lost white voters who didn’t go to college by 18 points, but he lost whites who made less than $50,000 by only four points. No wonder Santorum doesn’t want us to go to college. (Intermarriage rates are also highest among the college educated.)
Young or old, surveys and polls find that whites without college degrees are the most pessimistic Americans, with a majority saying the expect their kids to be worse off than they are. Are they all like Pat Buchanan, sulking because their country no longer looks the way it did when they were younger, and they are unwilling to share it with people who aren’t white? No doubt, some of them are. But the way that white people, particularly the economically vulnerable, react to the browning of America will have a lot to do with how we treat them. Yes, I said we and them. The forces of social justice have always looked out for the rights and singular insights of minority populations. We’re about to have a new one to think about.
I know white people still hold disproportionate wealth and power in this country. They make up an estimated 95 percent of the top 1 percent. But I’m more interested in the more than 99 percent of whites who are excluded from that top group. We’re right to point out the ways even low income white people have benefited from the long legal and extralegal history of racial subjugation and white supremacy, to identify the colorless, odorless oxygen known as “white privilege.” But we’re wrong when we act like it trumps every other form of disadvantage. Increasingly, it does not.
I’d like to ask more of white people, too. Conservative advocates of a “common culture” love to point to the slogan e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one.” I love that idea too. The question today is whether white Americans can accept merely being “one, out of many,” rather than the dominant American norm to which others are expected to aspire to join. The right acts like “minorities” invented the dreaded “identity politics.” But of course white people invented identity politics. It’s been our world, and everyone else has had to live with it, coping the best they can.
Still, it’s been clear for a while our ways of talking about fairness aren’t keeping up with the times. We’ve made enormous progress on racial justice in the last 40 years, and yet our shamefully high black poverty rate is roughly the same, and the share of all Americans who are poor has risen. In that same time, the top 1 percent has gone from 8 to 23 percent of the nation’s income and gobbled up 40 percent of its wealth. We are obviously doing something wrong.
Lately, we’re doing something right, even if it’s only in the way we talk about these issues. After an approval-rating low during the August debt-ceiling crisis, when he faux-bragged about cutting domestic spending to the lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower, President Obama now receives positive job-performance ratings from a majority of American voters in several recent polls. Tuesday’s unparalleled speech before the UAW showed some of why.
You want to talk about values? Hard work – that’s a value. Looking out for one another – that’s a value. The idea that we’re all in it together – that I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper – that is a value.
But they’re still talking about you as if you’re some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten. Since when are hardworking men and women special interests? Since when is the idea that we look out for each other a bad thing? To borrow a line from our old friend Ted Kennedy: what is it about working men and women they find so offensive?
This notion that we should have let the auto industry die; that we should pursue anti-worker policies in hopes unions like yours will unravel – it’s part of that same old you’re-on-your-own philosophy that says we should just leave everyone to fend for themselves. I don’t think so. That’s the philosophy that got us into this mess. And we can’t afford to go back.
We will not settle for a country where a few people do really well, and everyone else struggles to get by. We’re fighting for an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony profits. We’re fighting for an economy that’s built to last – one built on things like education, energy, manufacturing things the rest of the world wants to buy, and restoring the values that made this country great: Hard work. Fair play. The opportunity to make it if you try. And the responsibility to reach back and help someone else make it, too.
That’s who we are. That’s what we believe in.
Sometimes the cold demographic analysis of the Democratic Party’s future can sound like we’re waiting for the white working class to die off. But that’s dangerous: if they rally to the Republican Party in this next election, they can do enough damage to make life very difficult for the Democratic majority that’s waiting to emerge – the young, women, lower-income blacks, Latinos and Asians – and for themselves. Waiting for them to die off seems like a risky strategy, and a little mean, to boot. I can’t do that; most of my extended family is among them.
I remember people worrying – I was one of them – that candidate Obama couldn’t connect with white working class voters in 2008. But he changed some of his pitch, and he improved on white Democrats’ standing with that group in 2008. The president who made that UAW speech should be able to connect with all voters in 2012, except the most hardened, selfish members of the top 1 percent, and their errand-boys in the GOP. The worst stereotyping about working class whites is today coming from the right, from the likes of Charles Murray and his Republican admirers. It’s time we all woke up.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)